By Ann Schneible

ROME, MARCH 30, 2012 ( The Venerable English College, in association with the British Embassy to the Holy See, today hosted a Colloquium to celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See, as well as the 30th anniversary of Blessed John Paul II's pastoral visit to the United Kingdom in 1982.

The Colloquium, titled "Britain and the Holy See: A Celebration of 1982 and the Wider Relationship," focused on the significance of the 1982 papal visit, the ecumenical relationship between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church, and finally the historical diplomatic relationship between Britain and the Holy See.

Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Holy See, His Excellency Nigel Baker, spoke with ZENIT about the significance of the 1982 papal visit, the relationship between the Holy See and Britain, and the importance of the Holy See in international diplomacy.

ZENIT: We heard about Blessed John Paul II's 1982 visit to the United Kingdom. How does this visit continue to influence diplomatic relations between England and the Holy See?

Baker: I was struck listening to the Cardinals, Archbishop, and bishop today when they were talking about the impact of the 1982 visit. And at points they were comparing 1982 with now, and how things have moved on since then. Two things particularly. One, the qualitative difference now from then and preceding 1982, and the ecumenical relationship: how things have developed extraordinarily between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church and the other denominations, and indeed the way the Catholic Church, Catholics in Britain, are perceived in the country, as to before that first papal visit. It seems to me a crucial area of difference, and something which the visit of 1982 helped to make happen.

The other was the difference in the way the British government perceives the relationship with the Holy See. The fact of the 1982 visit was, of course, important. But it's important to know that was a pastoral visit, unlike the visit of Pope Benedict the XVI, which was a State visit. The impact of the visit of 1982 helped the British government of the time understand that here was this global organization which the government itself should engage with and take seriously, both for its global role and also for its role within the United Kingdom itself. I think two things that 1982 visit really helped to develop in terms of Britain and the Holy See.

ZENIT: What contribution does the Holy See make to international diplomacy?

Baker: You may have seen that there was a significant visit by British government delegation in February: seven British government ministers came. Why do seven British government ministers come to the Holy See? We don't normally have delegations of seven ministers going to countries. The answer is that there is an extremely wide agenda of action and activity between Britain and the Holy See which really shows the importance of the Holy See in the international diplomatic affairs.

I'll touch on just some of the main issues they were talking about which will answer your question: climate change (the engagement of the global Catholic Church in the protection of creation); disarmament, the constant calls for peace (I would particularly focus on small-arms trade, which of course is a great killer of people, across particularly the developing world); development, and looking ahead to Rio; and the role of the global Church in education, in healthcare, not in working on the ground but in the policies behind that sort of activity; the middle East, and the important role of Christianity in the Middle East, and the engagement in the Holy See in what is now an absolute focus of the British government. I could mention many other issues, but I think that, in itself, just shows why the British government is constantly engaging with the Holy See on a very wide waterfront, because, of the Holy See’s importance, and the role of the global Catholic Church in issues which are of fundamental importance in the world today.

ZENIT: What is the role of the Holy See in fortifying religious freedom in England?

Baker: It's a very interesting issue. It's something the British government ministers had the chance to talk about during their visit in February. I think I would be cautious about using the term "religious freedom" when, say, talking about a country like the United Kingdom. Everybody is, of course, absolutely free to worship, to engage in worship, to practice, to express their views. The balancing act that, say, the British government has to manage, and indeed the British courts have to manage, is that they are representative of a society in which there are many Christians (probably a majority Christian society of different denominations), Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, people of no religion, who come at a loss of these ethical… in very different directions. So there is a very difficult balance to be struck. Now, there are some big issues where a response, say, to a particular decision by a court, is striking against freedom of conscience, and the individual looking at his or her religious beliefs to be able to act according to those beliefs. In broad terms, government is extremely sympathetic to arguments of that sort. But, of course, the complexities of the issues when one applies aspects of the law of the land, other issues of rights – be they human rights, be the equality issues – in which the question of individual conscience is also mixed up. We talk to the Holy See, we engage with the Holy See a lot. We talk internationally, we talk over at the United Nations about some of these issues as well when applied more globally. There are incredibly complex ones. For me, the importance is, that there's a constant dialogue, constant understanding and respect for the positions of others, including members of the Catholic faith. So that decisions impacting, particularly when it comes to the law, are not taken hastily, are taken with all the evidence available, and that there is a clear hearing for all views before a decision is reached.

ZENIT: Why was the Venerable English College chosen as the venue for this Colloquium?

Baker: There's a strong partnership between the embassy and the College, as many of my pre-Reformation predecessors were actually officers of the College, and lived in the College during there residence in Rome as Ambassadors. It's also a year of celebration for the College; it's their 650thanniversary as a foundation and, it's important to note, as a Royal foundation. And I'm very keen to highlight that historical link. There are other British colleges here in Rome as well: there's the Scottish College; the Pontifical Irish College (which looks to the Republic of Ireland but also to Northern Ireland, some of its seminarians are from Northern Ireland); the Beta College, for more mature seminarians, many of whom are British. And I think that relationship between the colleges, who are providing an extraordinary service to the United Kingdom. Training young men to engage in pastoral ministry in the United Kingdom is something which the embassy should celebrate as well. So there's that historical relationship, there’s of course the national relationship, and also the celebratory relationship, all of which we wanted to mark by coming together for this conference.